Here’s another one of our occasional in-depth articles by Zakia Uddin, looking at various elements of the music industry. This time around, Zakia analyses the differences and arguments for/against multi-track and live recording methods:
“Good music comes out of people playing together, knowing what they want to do and going for it. You have to sweat over it and bug it to death. You can’t do it by pushing buttons and watching a TV screen.”
– Keith Richards
Substitute a television for a computer screen, and Richards might well have gotten it wrong. BAMM’s Food Fight gathered figures in the music industry to debate the relative merits of live, one-take song recording, versus multitrack recording in the studio, where each element of a song is laid down separately and then compiled into a finished product. This episode of Food Fight discussed issues as diverse as creativity, the visual element of performing together and notions of what constitutes authenticity in music. But does the conventional dichotomy between the recording methods stand up when music production software offers possibilities of creating new hybrids of multitracked music and live performance on stage? Do bands have to even sweat it out in a studio any more if they have production software on their laptops?
Multitrack, live recording and lo-fi
Multitrack recording is a relatively recent phenomenon, coming into being in 1955 with the creation of the first 8-track recording machine. The term refers to the separation of vocals and instruments into tracks where the producer or the musicians can manipulate the sound of each element, before being re-assembled for the final product. Synonymous with a ‘smoother’ sound, some of the greatest albums have been made without the entire band in the studio at the same time. A classic example is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, for which the band members reportedly recorded separately, after a purported bombastic clash of egos.
On the other end of the studio recording experience is the live-recorded performance, which attempts to convey as much of the live experience as possible, minus the sound of the audience. One of the best known bands employing this sound is Shellac, whose post-hardcore aesthetic is conveyed in their tight, sparse recordings, which are spartan to the point of eschewing the most subtle of overdubs. Here, a punk ethos strangely collides with that of Richards’ viewpoint that recorded music should impart the live experience to listeners. Producer Steve Albini and Shellac guitar player last year told the Art of Record Production conference at Leeds University that he “[…] can’t divorce the song (the notes and text) from the execution of it. We’ve all heard cover bands play versions of supposedly ‘great’ songs, and those cover versions are often horrible. I don’t think it’s possible for a song to be ‘good’ on its own, distinct from somebody performing it. Good songs are good because somebody did something special by singing them. The song as distinct from the performance is bullshit. I know there’s a whole songwriting industry, and copyright lawyers, who would disagree with me, but they’re wrong.”
Most albums and recordings of bands fall somewhere in the middle, though the different methods of recording continue to raise contentious issues about authenticity and representativeness. One of the concerns, expressed by BAMM.TV’s Music Director Phil Lang in Food Fight, is how multitracking means that bands can often miss out on the shared experience of putting down a song in the studio. Personal interaction, and the ability to get into a groove in the studio, can disappear in favour of stifling perfectionism when performers have to lay down tracks separately. And this is not to mention the myriad potential problems with timing. However, for some producers, multitracking does not have to be devoid of spontaneity. In Food Fight’s debate, founder of MIDI Doctor and radio producer Luke Nyman states that the metronome acts as a guideline for bands, as opposed to providing a rigid all-encompassing framework in which to play a track. This serves to draw into question whether multitracking is less creative. For example, Radiohead have consistently tried to push the boundaries in the studio while recording and tracking. Describing the process of recording Kid A to Q magazine, the band said that they wanted to channel the improvisational skills of their heroes, experimental Krautrock band Can, while recording the album.
At the other end of the scale, there are bootleg-quality recordings where bands record themselves live with only a few amplified microphones, in many instances. This relates closely to the lo-fi aesthetic, which has recently seen a huge revival in bands with relatively high profiles, as compared to the alternative bands of the 1980s and the 1990s. More about the lo-fi revival later, but from this brief overview it is possible to see that the mode in which an album is recorded and produced raises several contentious issues around ethos, limitations on creativity in the studio, and how much a band should try to convey the live experience on recording.
Creativity versus democratisation of music production
One of the most oft-cited definitions of creativity is that it is borne from limitation. But what happens when there are almost an unlimited number of plug-ins available on a computer programme to create a range of sounds? In Food Fight’s discussion, Non Records founder, producer and DJ Bear Damen asks whether the new definition of creativity in the studio is to be able to make the appropriate choices at the right times from a huge range of plug-ins, rather than work with a limited range of equipment. In contention, Lang says that there remains an ethos where bands, particularly in small local scenes such as in San Francisco, will only consider using the real hardware, reflecting a hard-won attitude to music production, where each piece of equipment has been mastered before it is used for a track. Implicit in the statement is an idea that real musicianship involves handling the instruments themselves.
Arguably, music production has undergone major democratisation because of the existence of recording programmes somewhat more accessible to those lacking extensive technological skills, such as Logic and GarageBand. This can serve to potentially undermine the value of ‘mastery’ of equipment in the studio. GarageBand’s playful name is a wink and a nod to the idea that there is a certain divide between studio bands and indie bands, despite its appeal lying in its ability to offer something approximating a professional recording experience for many aspiring musicians. The term garage band also plays on its retro charm, evoking a rough-and-ready, basic DIY aesthetic.
These music production programmes offer varying degrees of control over plug-ins, but most importantly they allow bands to determine their sound without ceding control to a producer or a sound engineer. This also means that bands can record and mix their own tracks within days, cutting out the studio experience altogether. It might be possible to argue the technology could signal a return to old-fashioned anti-corporate ethos where the band is in control. Speaking in Leeds, Albini told the Art of Record Production conference: “Other people are probably entertained by what we do, but we’re doing it for ourselves. Like dogs fucking, other people can notice what’s going on and take an interest, but it’s not happening for the sake of an audience. We try to enjoy ourselves and allow ourselves room to do something new every night. That’s an integral part of the design of the band, whether we’re in the studio or on stage.”
The paradoxical return of lo-fi
Despite the cheapness of home recording programmes such as Logic, lo-fi remains a desirable aesthetic. Lo-fi alerts listeners to the conditions of its production – the phrases garage music and bedroom musician sum up the home-made feel of the music, even though many lo-fi artists have recorded in studios. The live feeling and intimacy of the basic production has often been opposed to the smoother, shinier possibilities of multitracking. Musician Chad Vangaalen told journalist Anthony Carew about his band’s lo-fi ethos: “The thing that I do like about those recordings is that they weren’t trying to hide. They’re saying: we were in the studio, playing these songs, recording them, this is a real thing. Keeping in mistakes, for me, is something that needs to be done, to be able to do perpetuate that idea of kids listening to it and then being motivated to make that themselves.” The sound attempts to bring the intimacy of live performance to the listener at home. It is also associated with a defiantly indie attitude, celebrating cheapness and immediacy over the bombast of expensive production. There is an argument that the lo-fi aesthetic is revived cyclically in reaction to shiny multitracked studio production, with some of the most stand-out periods for the former in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the most feted lo-fi bands of the early 1990s were Guided by Voices and Dinosaur Jr, emerging at a time when hard-edged synths and electronic drums dominated the production of many commercially successful bands.
What about the new revival in lo-fi techniques? Some of the most hyped bands in music in recent years have adopted this way of recording. No Age and Times New Viking are particularly representative of the scuffed sound, with Best Coast most recently exemplifying the aesthetic. One band that has experimented intermittently with its production has been Animal Collective, whose Danse Manatee has perhaps been the least understood of its output so far. The album, which was originally limited to a 1000-issue run, was recorded in a variety of places by the band, including their living room and garage. The band experimented with different frequencies in order to see “how they occupied space in the room and moved around in your heads.” Avey Tare told Pitchfork: “Basically we [recorded] where ever we could find a quiet spot. We just wanted to explore a new style of playing on record. This was after the three of us had spent most of the summer improvising and playing around with fusing song structure and noise and looking for ways to do it with fluidity.”
Contemporaries such as Ariel Pink have eschewed the studio altogether in favour of producing their own records, which display strong pop sensibilities. Here, we can see how production values that attempt to recreate intimacy are not inextricably tied with a genre of music. In fact, one of the pleasures perhaps of listening to a band such as Times New Viking or Ariel Pink has been the familiarity of the melodies underlying the cheap production.
Times New Viking’s music has been much debated on music forums. The band’s melodic tunes are overlaid by so much static and dirt that it is near impossible to pick out the vocals and the instruments. Music listeners have increasingly expressed bewilderment at why the band would do this, with many wondering whether it would be better to see the band live to get a “real” flavour of their sound. There has also been cynicism about the fact that the sound is achieved at the mastering level, rather than during the recording itself. Sean Adams, co-founder of the lively music forum Drowned in Sound, began a thread at the height of the new lo-fi movement, expressing dissent, saying: “What I can’t figure out if this is an aesthetic born out of necessity due to poor budgets equals home recording, small bands being cheap to tour or a reaction to the over-produced sheen and laptop electronics, as well as the commodified music now deemed as ‘alternative’, that welcomes and panders to the audience.”
Certainly, there have been features on music sites advising musicians on how to get the lo-fi effect. On the website Music Radar, aspiring lo-fi musicians are told to buy tape decks on eBay and download vintage samples of electronic drum machines. However, Adams’ argument might be challenged by the fact that some artists are using lo-fi aesthetics to embrace genres of music that have exclusively been associated with glossy production values. For example, How to Dress Well has experimented with off-kilter melodies on tracks like ‘Can’t See My Own Face’ that have the sugary sweet instantaneousness of R&B, with vocals to match, and burying them under waves of scuzz. This leads one to wonder if lo-fi R&B might be the natural progression of those with established pop sensibilities, an iPod shuffle and cheap recording equipment.
More recent developments such as ‘chillwave’ and ‘witch house’ have propelled the revival in the lo-fi aesthetic, building it into the music itself. For example, bands associated with witch house, such as Salem, construct their tracks from the counterpoint between the sound of static and ethereal, soaring beats reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins. The track ‘King Night’ demonstrates this contrast in particular. On top of that, the vocals themselves are chopped and screwed, making an integral part of the song sound like a chewed up cassette tape recording. Other musicians such as Toro y Moi have used a lo-fi sound to evoke the fade of a Hipstamatic shot to their music, making lo-fi less an issue of equipment than of creating instant nostalgia through the aural equivalent of memory fuzz.
Whatever the ethical and aesthetic reasons for the recent lo-fi revival, Animal Collective’s development gives credence to the argument that most bands eventually move towards cleaner production, once a budget is in place. Their seventh album Strawberry Jam was recorded in Wave Lab Studios in Tucson, with band member Brian Weitz mocking the romantic notion about recording in the desert and making out it was a prosaic decision, as they would be in the studio, rather than the desert itself. A similar evolution can be seen in the sound of Guided by Voices, whose early self-pressed recordings sound like they’ve been buried in a well. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have also gone in the same direction for their second album Belong, which elicited mixed responses precisely because their previously rough production had given their pop sensibilities an edge. Times New Viking made a surprise leap into the studio for their fifth album Dancer Equired, almost paralleling Guided by Voices by deciding to leave their label and joining Merge, a breakaway group from Matador, to where Guided by Voices moved in 1994, signalling a musical shift away from the lo-fi aesthetic (and distribution) of 1992’s Propeller.
Multitracking and remix culture
Multitracking comes into its own in what Lawrence Lessig has termed the ‘remix culture’. Lessig made a famous distinction between a ‘read only’ culture and a ‘remix culture’. The latter signals one where a small group of professionals produce cultural artefacts for a society largely made up of consumers. In contrast, remix culture is healthy, with collaboration being one of the main ways of expressing creativity, and this can tell us something about the relationship between creativity per se, and the seemingly less spontaneous and serendipitous approach of multitracking. Remixing is impossible without the use of multitracking, as DJs and producers cannot manipulate the separate elements of the final record. This flexibility offers bands the ability to experiment between a more high-octane sound and a lo-fi aesthetic on different versions of the same track. Speaking on Food Fight, Damen points out how polished bands dependent on the studio sound are experimenting with remixes in genres that often have lower production values. He tells us that one of his label’s key remixes is for Kings of Leon, who are apparently into chillwave these days, which is interesting because the new genre’s scuzzy and atmospheric vibes seem diametrically opposed to the stadium-friendly anthemic, masculine pop of the Kings of Leon. But remixes make for strange bedfellows.
The remix culture also demonstrates the eagerness of audiences to juxtapose and move across genres. Remixes feed the thirst of musicians to experiment, while bringing in new audiences. One of the most cited quotes about remixing is from ethno-musicologist John Von Seggorn who described a remix as pointing “to ways of working with information on higher levels of organization, pulling together the efforts of others into a multi-layered multi-referential whole which is much more than the sum of its parts”. This seems more relevant than ever at this time when attention spans are divided, and time is precious. Why listen to one artist when you can get a flavour of two in a single track? It could also be argued the prevalence of remixes is part of making a record “stick” however it can, particularly for those audiences who are constantly in “shuffle” mode. One of the most remixed records of recent years has been Phoenix’s Listzomania, which has since been remixed by the labels as diverse as Kitsune and bands such as Metric, taking a mid-tempo indie song into more challenging electronic territory.
Electronic music and the studio/stage divide
Creativity in live performance has often been seen as exclusively as the preserve of traditional guitar bands. Geologist from Animal Collective has spoken previously about the relationship between lo-fi recording methods and playing live to increasingly bigger audiences. He told Carew: “It didn’t feel as if the music was any bigger than the four of us. We still try to keep that feeling that it’s just the four of us, but because we work with songs over the course of playing them live, they sort of develop now with a larger audience presence. Before, songs would develop in our practice space, or at a show in New York in front of 20 of our friends.” In contrast, electronic music has been weighed down with baggage about inauthenticity, which is seemingly confirmed by the ‘one man and a laptop’ cliché of some electronic shows. Speaking about the production of Kid A to Spin With a Grin, guitarist Jonny Greenwood describes the cognitive dissonance of recording electronic music for the first time: “I see it like this: a voice into onto a tape, into a microphone, on a CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer—it doesn’t put Thom in your front room—but one is perceived as ‘real’ the other, somehow ‘unreal’.” If the recording of guitar music is often intrinsically related to the live experience, what happens to electronic music that is necessarily created in the studio and pre-recorded, when it is brought to the stage? The question has often been asked of electronic musicians as to whether they are playing or performing on stage. Is it a case of turning up and turning on, rather than a dynamic process between audience and players? Electronic music had always been considered to be at a disadvantage because it can’t breach the divide between stage and studio, but the availability of technology such as Logic and Ableton has increased the pervasiveness of the genre, and has served to change the debate.
Musician and multi-instrumentalist Ben Jacobs, otherwise known as Max Tundra, performs his heavily layered, intricate compositions live. Frequently touring, he has strong words to say about how many electronic musicians approach live performance of their music. He told BAMM.TV: “I have been to so many shows where it’s basically just one dude behind a laptop, playing FarmVille or whatever, just bobbing his head and staring at the screen, and it’s very boring being an audience member at an event like that. I think it is vital to engage the crowd; anything less is disrespectful.
“If you’re not going to give them anything fun to watch, they might as well just be at home listening to your album. I hope we will see an end to the ‘boring dude behind laptop’ type of gig, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.” With the increasing importance of live gigging and performance, Jacobs points out how vital it is for artists of all genres to be able to translate their music live. “From an artist’s point of view”, he said, “as less and less of a musician’s earnings are made from record sales, playing concerts becomes more important. As a music fan, the experience of being in a room watching a band you love is something which cannot be faked”.
Musicians such as DJ Shadow and Ben Jacobs remix on stage, essentially creating new tracks that can often not be repeated again—creating what could almost be cynically described as value-added material at a time when it’s all about the add-ons. The electronic band The Flying Skulls have referred to their own hybrid arrangements as “deconstruxions”. Band member J Tonal describes to tech writer Primus Luta the process from studio to stage: “We create tracks in the studio in the normal fashion. They get broken up in to drum and bass parts, which get played live on the MPC, melody and lead parts which get played on the MS2000, and samples and other melody parts which get broken down into [Ableton] Live clips and played from [an M-Audio] Trigger Finger.” The future is likely to see ever more experimentation with live and pre-recording as the technology develops and live performance becomes a vital source of income for musicians.
Issues of live recording versus multitracking take in much more than technical recording methods – they raise questions about ethos and the kinds of relationships a band seeks to have with its audiences. The debate has also changed in the past few years because of the democratisation of the music-making process, which means that lo-fi aesthetic itself does not necessarily mean ‘cheap’ or ‘analogue’. In addition, electronic recording equipment has evolved so that the studio has become portable, creating new ways of performing and new hybrids of musical arrangements. While the idea that live recordings in the studio are more ‘authentic’ is still strong, it seems that notions about what constitutes authenticity and creativity will be challenged in the future as electronic equipment and artists come to bridge the gap between live and multitracked music on the stage itself.